He remembers her as the neighbor girl on the swing. He used to babysit her. Now he's a cop, and she faces a 10-year prison term for prostitution. Can he help her?
By LANE DeGREGORY
Published October 19, 2003
[Time photos: Bill Serne]
At the court hearing to determine whether she will go to jail or rehab, Melissa Collora, in her jail blues, stands in front of Judge Philip J. Federico at the 49th Street court complex. The judge heard from her arresting officer and the people who want to help her, and he agreed to let her go to treatment instead of jail.
[Photo: Pinellas County Sheriffs Office]
Melissa Collora, in a booking photo five years ago, at age 18.
Sgt. Tim Montanari has known Melissa Collora since she was a little girl, when his family lived in the house next to hers on Bayshore Boulevard NE in St. Petersburg.
On Fourth Street N near 48th Avenue, Melissa marked her name in the concrete when it was wet. She said it was to let the other prostitutes know that this was her block. St. Petersburg police made more than 400 arrests for prostitution last year.
In August 2002, Melissa Collora was arrested for prostitution. It wasnt the first time. Here she is questioned by the St. Petersburg vice officers who arrested her, including Tim Montanari, who has been a police officer for 15 years.
Melissa Collora at age 21, after an arrest on prostitution and drug charges.
[Pinellas County Sheriffs Office]
With her borrowed suitcase, Melissa leaves the house where she was staying with Tracy Leigh and Leighs husband, Alan, who is at the door. Melissa is headed with Tracy to the treatment center in New York.
Turn around, Melissa. Turn around so I can see you, the cop keeps thinking.
St. Petersburg police Sgt. Tim Montanari is sitting in the front row of the courtroom, staring at the defendant's back. He wants to see her face.
Is this the prostitute he arrested for selling herself for $8 and a Baby Ruth bar?
Or the little girl he used to babysit a lifetime ago, back when their families lived next door to each other?
If any part of that girl is still alive, the cop wants to help find her. That's why he's here.
He has never done anything like this before. Usually, he just reads from the reports, helps put people in jail. Today, he's going to speak up for the second-most-arrested prostitute in St. Petersburg, a known crack addict. He has come on this September day to ask the judge to give her a break.
His palms are sweating. His knees are shaking.
How can he explain what happened to her? Does that explain everything? Can she be saved from herself?
He's her last hope.
On the other side of the courtroom, beside the bailiff, Melissa Collora is slumped in a chair. She has shoved the sleeves of her jail-issue scrubs above her eight-ball tattoos. Her long, stringy black hair is hiding her face.
She doesn't turn around.
She can't face the cop.
* * *
Melissa is 23 years old. She has been arrested 17 times since she turned 18. She virtually owns the corner of Fourth Street and 48th Ave. N., where she has worked the last five years. She even etched her name in the sidewalk when the concrete was wet: MELISSA.
The cop has caught her behind bushes, beside Dumpsters, in the back seats of cars. "The guys in vice have this joke," he says: "We see Melissa naked more often than we see our wives."
Her longest stay in jail was 10 months. Two days after she got out, she got picked up again. She has been arrested so many times that her charges have been increased to felonies. Today, in this courtroom, she's looking at 10 years behind bars.
"Your honor, you can see she has two charges of prostitution here," says Soraida Justiniano, her court-appointed attorney. "But she has several people in the audience who are here to support her. I should point out that the arresting officer is here to support her."
The attorney continues: "She's been screened for, and accepted into, this program. A program in New York. And if someone with these charges asks for treatment, we should at least give her one shot."
Judge Philip J. Federico looks up from his bench.
Slowly, the cop rises from the front row.
Repent and reform
The cop arranged everything. He found Melissa a way out. At a civic meeting a few months ago, he met two women from Praise Cathedral in Pinellas Park. They told him about a place in upstate New York called the Walter Hoving Home, a 60-bed, Christian-based rehab center. Former prostitutes go there to pray, repent and learn life skills. The women watch self-help videos. They study the Bible. They learn how to grow a garden and balance a checkbook and sing in a choir.
The women from the church said they could raise enough money to send one prostitute to the Hoving Home. The cop told them about Melissa, and they agreed to help. They went to jail to visit her. They prayed for her, through the video monitor.
"I don't know nothing about God," Melissa told them. "But I'll take your word for it."
The cop thought Melissa would be the toughest to convince. In the past, when he has offered help, she has scowled at him, cussed him out. Once, when he surprised her with a customer on Gandy Beach, she spit out the evidence right at his feet.
But when he sent the church women to see her, she let them stay. She told them she would try to change. He knows she would say anything to escape a long sentence. But he wants to believe her.
Now he has to convince the judge.
"I'm at a loss as to how this woman is different from everybody else who comes here in front of me and says they'll change - then comes back before me and I send them back to jail," the judge says. He shakes his head. "But if the sergeant can come up here and tell me why, I'll listen."
The cop walks to the witness stand, still wondering what to say.
"I've never had an arresting officer come up here on behalf of a defendant," the judge says.
The cop takes a deep breath. "This goes back a long way, your honor," he says. "I've known Melissa for almost 20 years."
The judge looks down at the prostitute, who is staring at her dirty sneakers. "Why do you think things will be any different for her this time?" the judge asks.
The cop stays silent for a second, weighing his answer. "Well, I came here today because I don't think it's too late for her," he says softly. "If we remove her from her environment, take her away from the people she's been in trouble with, I truly believe she can be helped."
The cop's voice cracks as he continues, "She's never wanted help before."
Reluctantly, the judge agrees to give Melissa two years' probation and to send her to the Hoving Home. He wants quarterly progress reports sent to her probation officer. And if she runs, he says, she'll be brought back here and sentenced to 10 years. Florida prosecutors and law professors say they can't remember a judge ever doing something like this.
The judge turns to Melissa. "Do you understand the opportunity you're getting here?" he asks her.
Her face is still hidden behind her hair.
"That's the only reason I'm doing this," the judge says. "Because this officer is here on your behalf."
Melissa, then and now
The cop has mug shots of Melissa. The first photo was taken when she was 18: a schoolgirl wearing a striped T-shirt, with long, brown hair spilling across her shoulders. Her wide, brown eyes gaze out from beneath thick brows.
The second photo was taken three years later. In it, she's a haggard skeleton in a low-necked blouse whose hair has been chopped into a ragged mane. Her cheeks have collapsed and her mouth is slung open. Her dark, vacant eyes have sunk deep into their sockets.
The cop uses these photos for show-and-tell when he's talking about crack and prostitution. But when he thinks about Melissa, he tries not to see either image.
He tries to remember a shy little girl with ponytails who loved Barbies and swimming and Rainbow Brite.
Before he became a cop, Tim Montanari was a teenager growing up in a big house on Bayshore Boulevard NE, right next to the Colloras. Both families had boats and pools and basketball hoops. Melissa's dad owned a gas station and garage. Her mom stayed home, taking care of her and her two big brothers.
"Those Collora kids had everything," says the cop, "video games, a jukebox. They had cable TV long before anyone else on the block." He remembers Melissa carrying around a rag doll. He remembers her trying to roller-skate down the sidewalk. He can still see her swinging in her back yard, ponytails flying.
"She was always real quiet," he says. "Always watching everyone with these big, wide eyes."
Tim is 19 years older than Melissa. He used to babysit her and her brothers when they were in elementary school. He taught Melissa how to fish off their back dock. He read her stories.
He told her not to be afraid of the dark.
A way out
Melissa's dad died before she started school. He hurt his back at the garage one day, then started taking pain pills. One morning, he overdosed. That's what everyone says.
After that, her mom took a job at Mass Brothers department store, downtown. When Melissa was 8, her mom remarried. Everything was okay for a few years. Then Melissa's mom got sick. First leukemia. Then breast cancer. For a few months, when Melissa was 11, her mom had to move into the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center.
"While she was getting chemo, our stepdad took this other woman to Hawaii," says Melissa's brother, Vinny. "When she got home from the hospital, we told her what he had done."
But Melissa didn't tell her mom everything. Years later, a female cop asked her if she had been sexually abused as a child - a common experience among prostitutes.
"Only by my stepfather," Melissa said. "He started when I was 11."
By the time Melissa turned 13, her mom had gotten divorced. She seemed to be feeling better but was struggling in other ways. She was raising three children on her own, deep in debt with medical bills, unsure whether the cancer would stay in remission.
On the morning of Sept. 16, 1993, while Melissa was in middle school, her brother Richie found their mom in the garage. She was hanging from a red ski rope looped around the overhead track for the garage door.
She had left a note by the kitchen phone: "I'm sorry to the kids," she wrote. "Melissa, please forgive me. I love you. Vinny, I love you, too. Richie, take care of yourself. I also love you."
Another piece of paper was folded beside the note. Melissa's mom had scribbled the same three words over and over, 10 times in a column marching down the page, then over and over again, every word retraced on top of itself: "A way out . . . A way out . . . A way out . . . ."
Tim had joined the Army by then. His parents had sold the house on Bayshore Boulevard NE. But they all went to the funeral for Melissa's mom. "Melissa didn't cry much, I remember. She just kept staring out of those wide, dark eyes," he says.
The next time he would see her, he wouldn't recognize her.
On her own
Over the next few years, the Collora kids drifted into separate lives. Richie finished high school, then joined the Air Force. Vinny moved in with some friends. Melissa ended up in New Jersey living with an aunt.
There, she fell apart. She started skipping school. She started taking the train to New York City, where she learned about crack. And more. "One night, Melissa must have been 15, my Aunt Janet heard her arguing on the phone with some guy," says her brother Vinny. "My aunt asked her who she was talking to. "My pimp,' my sister said. Straight up."
After her aunt threw her out, Melissa moved back to Florida. Her uncle put her in Brookwood girls' home in St. Petersburg. Melissa stole the house van. She started sleeping on a bench in Williams Park, only a few miles from the house where she grew up.
Every evening, after the sun started to fade, Melissa would walk Fourth Street. She'd start at 38th Avenue N and go to about 50th, always walking toward traffic. Guys nicknamed her Olive Oyl because she's so tall and skinny - and she always twists her long, black hair onto a knot on her head.
By the time she was 19, she was doing 15 fixes a day, so she had to make at least $300.
A female officer asked Melissa why she turned tricks. "Fast money is easy to prostitute," Melissa said. "I'm hooked on crack."
"Have you ever been beaten up?" the officer asked her.
"Not bad," Melissa said.
Sometimes, while she was between customers, Melissa would walk a few blocks off her route. She'd wind up on Bayshore Boulevard NE and creep past her old home. She'd sneak into the back yard, where someone else's boat was bobbing by the dock.
Then she'd swing in her old swing set, kicking her feet in the dark.
"What are you doing?"
"She says she knows you, Sergeant," the vice cop said.
On April 17, 2001, Tim Montanari answered a call from undercover officers who had arrested a couple having sex in a mangrove stand off Fourth Street. He found a partially nude woman with emaciated arms, hollow cheeks, eyes that hadn't focused in days. He stared at her in shock.
"You know her?" another cop asked him.
He wasn't sure. Finally, he asked, "What are you doing?"
Melissa wouldn't look at him. She closed her dark eyes and twisted her hair into a knot. "I do this so I can smoke crack," she said. "So leave me alone."
That night, the cop called his mom. "You'll never guess who I ran into," he said. "Pray for her."
It's not pretty
After a while, Melissa says, you almost get used to it. Your friends are all doing it. You live from one high to the next, so you can do what you have to, so you can get that next high.
It's not like Pretty Woman, she says. Parts are pretty bad. Pretty scary. Like when the guy takes you somewhere, and you don't know where you're going, or what he wants, or even if he's going to pay you.
"You wake up sometimes and this is your life," she says, "and you're just so over it you throw your crack pipe against the wall and swear you'll get out.
"Okay. There. Then what?"
Most women's shelters won't take prostitutes. Drug rehab? No thanks. Tried and failed. Jail? That's a joke. "Summer camp," she told her brother Vinny. "A hot shower and hot food and no men to slime all over you."
The power of prayer
The New York rehab center doesn't lock its doors. The women are supposed to want to be at the Hoving Home. More than 80 percent of the prostitutes who complete the program don't return to the streets, the brochure says.
Residents are supposed to get up at 5:30 every morning, read the Bible and meditate. They're supposed to make breakfast together and clean the house and work in the yard. They're supposed to study Christian guidebooks and participate in group therapy sessions.
The rehab center has no licensed counselors or drug-addiction specialists on staff. Only former prostitutes, who have graduated from the one-year program. They reform women through prayer, they say.
"A few people who have very strong religious beliefs can be helped with a program like that," says Jim Quinn, who directs the Institute for Studies of Addictions at the University of North Texas. He has studied Florida prostitutes as part of a research project. "But drug addiction is the driving thing here," he says. "She needs to work one-on-one with licensed chemical-dependency counselors.
"The odds of a purely faith-based program working for this woman are not high."
A call from Aunt Melissa
When Melissa gets out of jail, the woman from the church, Tracy Leigh, takes her to her own house. She gives Melissa a bubble bath and a night shirt and new cotton underwear from JCPenney. "Flowery," Leigh says, flourishing the panties, "so you'll feel all girly again."
Leigh also hands Melissa a letter. It's from the cop. "You can do this," Tim wrote. "I believe in you." Melissa packs his letter in a suitcase Leigh lent her.
Later that night, she calls her brother Vinny. Years ago, Vinny used to try to find her on Fourth Street, used to take her to dinner once in a while. But like everyone else, he got tired of her asking for money. He got tired of her refusing help. He gave up.
Vinny is 25 now and works at Wachovia Bank. He's married and has a 2-year-old son. "I'd like to think that my sister can change," he says. "I'd love to invite Aunt Melissa over for a Sunday cookout or something, so she could finally meet my son." His voice starts breaking. He waits a few seconds. "But I don't know," he says. "I just don't know."
That night on the phone, Melissa tells her brother about all her plans. "I can go to this place and get done in a year, or even less," she says. "And I'll be in New York! And my violations here are so petty, they'll never come looking for me up there."
When Melissa's brother hangs up, his hope has been drained. "She sounds like she's just looking for a way out," he says. "Sounds like the same old Melissa."
Behind the eight ball?
On the way to New York, Leigh baptizes Melissa in a Best Western bathroom. She makes Melissa get down on her knees and thank God for her deliverance.
Melissa checks into the Walter Hoving Home on Sept. 16, 2003 - 10 years to the day after her mother's death.
"I still think about it all the time," she tells Leigh.
While Melissa tours the Walter Hoving Home, Leigh videotapes her checking out the kitchen, the library and the new bedroom she'll share with four other former prostitutes. If Melissa makes it, Leigh says, her church will raise money to help other girls get into the program.
At the end of the day, Leigh asks Melissa if she has anything to add to the video. Melissa twists her hair onto her head. She pulls her shirt sleeves, trying to hide her eight-ball tattoos. Then she turns around and looks straight into the camera, so he can see her.
"I want to say thank you," Melissa says.
Maybe it's a performance. Maybe it's sincere. Whatever she's thinking, whatever she's feeling, this is what she says: